Dyslexia: your questions answered

teacher child dyslexia

Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that can cause problems with reading, writing and spelling. It's estimated up to one in every 10 people in the UK has some degree of dyslexia. We invited in Karen Mace, Head of Assessments and Professional Level Training at the British Dyslexia Association, to answer your questions.

What is dyslexia?

What are the signs of dyslexia?

There are a number of signs of dyslexia that may become apparent when a child starts school and begins to learn to read. A child may display some or all of the following signs:

  • Reading and writing very slowly
  • Getting the order of letters in words mixed up
  • Writing letters the wrong way round (such as writing “b” instead of “d”)
  • Having poor or inconsistent spelling
  • Understanding information when given verbally, but having difficulty with information that's written down
  • Finding it hard to carry out a sequence of directions
  • Struggling with planning and organisation

A list of signs like the ones above can sound a little daunting, but remember that children with dyslexia often have very good skills in other areas, such as creative thinking and problem solving.

boy writing

What are the symptoms of dyslexia?

Like the signs of dyslexia, the symptoms vary from person to person. Every person with dyslexia will have their own unique pattern of symptoms.

Dyslexia symptoms in pre-school children

Sometimes, it's possible to detect symptoms of dyslexia before a child starts school.

Symptoms can include:

  • Delayed speech development compared with other children of the same age (although this can be caused by many different things)
  • Speech problems, such as not being able to pronounce long words properly and 'jumbling' up phrases (for example, saying “hecilopter” instead of “helicopter”, or “beddy tear” instead of “teddy bear”)
  • Problems expressing themselves using spoken language, such as being unable to remember the right word to use, or putting sentences together incorrectly
  • Little understanding or appreciation of rhyming words, such as 'the cat sat on the mat', or nursery rhymes
  • Difficulty with, or little interest in, learning letters of the alphabet

Dyslexia symptoms in school children

Dyslexia is a spectrum condition, so it can range from mild to severe; just because you have a diagnosis, it doesn't mean your dyslexia is going to be the same as someone else's.

Symptoms of dyslexia usually become more obvious when children start school and begin to focus more on learning how to read and write.

Symptoms can include:

  • Problems learning the names and sounds of letters
  • Spelling that's unpredictable and inconsistent
  • Putting letters and figures the wrong way round (such as writing “6” instead of “9”, or “b” instead of “d”)
  • Confusing the order of letters in words
  • Reading slowly or making errors when reading aloud
  • Visual disturbances when reading (for example, a child may describe letters and words as seeming to move around or appear blurred)
  • Answering questions well orally but having difficulty writing the answer down
  • Struggling to learn sequences, such as days of the week or the alphabet
  • Slow writing speed
  • Poor handwriting

Dyslexia symptoms in teenagers and adults

As well as the symptoms listed above, the symptoms of dyslexia in older children and adults can include:

  • Poorly organised written work that lacks expression (for example, even though they may be very knowledgeable about a certain subject, they may have problems expressing that knowledge in writing)
  • Difficulty planning and writing essays, letters or reports
  • Difficulties revising for examinations
  • Poor spelling
  • Struggling to remember things such as a PIN or telephone number

How do I request a dyslexia assessment?

If you are worried about your child's progress with reading, writing and comprehension, you may wish to request a dyslexia assessment (do be aware, it can be a time-consuming process, frustratingly).

The results of this assessment will help you, your child and your child's teachers determine what additional support your child will need.

The first step is to meet with your child's teacher and their school's special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCO) to discuss your concerns and any interventions that have been tried already.

If your child continues to have difficulties despite interventions, you can ask for them to be referred for assessment by a local authority educational psychologist or another specialist in dyslexia.

Independent Parental Special Education Advice is an independent charity for parents of children with special needs.

Alternatively, you can approach an independent educational psychologist or another suitably qualified professional directly.

You can find a directory of chartered psychologists on the British Psychological Society's website.

You can also contact a national or local dyslexia association for help arranging an assessment.

This further assessment may result in a more formal educational plan being drawn up for your child.

Your questions answered

What is the difference between a child with dyslexia and a child who's 'just' a poor reader?

Karen Mace, Head of Assessments and Professional Level Training at the British Dyslexia Association, says:

A dyslexia diagnosis is not just about poor reading and spelling, it is about weak phonological awareness, processing speed, difficulties with working memory and automisation. A full assessment is extremely thorough and looks across a range of tests to tease out the strengths and difficulties. A child who is just a poor reader would probably also have poor underlying ability and therefore would be classed as low ability. The difference between that and dyslexia is a range of difficulties across the above areas but also a discrepancy between underlying ability and scores in reading, writing and spelling.

Following on from that question, what resources or interventions could you give a dyslexic child that you wouldn't give a 'poor reader'? Is there anything out there that’s 'added value' for a dyslexic child?

Karen says:

Screening skims the surface and gives an overview of 'likelihood' of dyslexia. However, a full assessment is the only way to know for sure. You know your child best and it is genetic. You don't grow out of dyslexia, but you might learn to cope better.

I am worried that my child will slip through the net upon assessment as she is very bright verbally. Is it possible that her dyslexia won't be picked up by an assessment, meaning she won't get the extra support she needs?

Karen says:

It is unlikely that your child's needs would fall through a full assessment because there are several tests to complete in a range of areas. It should show her to be bright through the visual and verbal underlying ability tests but those scores won't match up with her other ones. Support takes a range of forms, such as assistive technology, extra time, use of a reader or a scribe, and an assessment will help clarify which of these she needs.

Can the impact on a child's maths ability sometimes be greater than on reading and writing?

Karen says

Dyslexia can have an impact on maths in many ways.

Difficulties with verbal memory and working memory mean learners with dyslexia can have difficulty holding onto mathematical questions given verbally.

Mathematics has a language of its own and pupils have to learn the vocabulary of this new language. For example, the terms 'prime factors' and 'denominators' are very specific to maths and the terms 'take away' or 'difference' may be used in different contexts in everyday conversations, not just in maths contexts. Maths uses many symbols and symbols are linked to language which means memory is required. Visual difficulties can also occur, such as seeing a + as an x, or vice versa.

There has been much research in this area and a full diagnostic assessment would usually point out how to support a learner with dyslexia across the full range of subjects.

Dyslexia runs in the family and I can see my child struggling with the exact same things I did, but I'm told not to worry and that he'll grow out of it. He was screened by the Senco and passed that, but the screening seemed very basic and I'm unconvinced that they recognized his issues. What should I do?

Karen says:

Screening skims the surface and gives an overview of 'likelihood' of dyslexia. However, a full assessment is the only way to know for sure. You know your child best and it is genetic. You don't grow out of dyslexia, but you might learn to cope better.